UIUC bioengineering students share their Health Make-a-Thon experiences

By Joy Chen, Kavya Sudhir and Huan Song

The Health-Make-a-Thon is an annual startup competition hosted by the Carle Illinois College of Medicine, the first engineering-based college of medicine in the world. Makers from across the state of Illinois pitched their ideas with the goal of democratizing health innovation to improve the world’s well-being. Ten winning teams received $10,000 in seed support to bring their ideas to life in the Health Maker Lab. This year, two bioengineering student-led teams took home the prize. We virtually “sat-down” with Joy Chen of MePanel and Kavya Sudhir of Sepsig to share their experiences.

Who’s on your team?
Joy Chen: I teamed up with Adam Dama, a 2019 bioengineering graduate from Illinois who’s now a software automation engineer. Last year, my teammate and I attended the 2019 Make-a-Thon event, and I remember sitting in the crowded auditorium watching each of the finalists pitch their inspiring ideas. That’s when the gears started turning and we asked ourselves what we could do to innovate and help others.

Kavya Sudhir: Our team consists of a passionate group of both bioengineering and computer engineering. Sanjana Chunduri, Saloni Garg, and Trisha Yadav are sophomores in computer engineering and are interested in learning more about how they can apply their skills to the field of improving healthcare for all. I am a bioengineering major interested in learning more about the biotech space as learning about this side of healthcare will help me become a better physician in the future.

How did you come up with your ideas? 
Joy Chen: This part of the process was much harder than I had imagined and it was an endeavor to come up with a concrete idea with potential. We probably sat in all the cafes around town by the time we were done brainstorming. A lot of our research was centered around existing technologies in healthcare, particularly in patient-oriented and cutting edge areas, to help inspire us. We also sought out problems that our own families have dealt with relating to healthcare. Between our research and what we heard from those around us, a common idea that emerged was blood tests. Blood work is integral to almost every treatment plan and is oftentimes the very first step to a diagnosis and continues to be an important component through treatment. The more we researched the process, the more it became clear to us that there was room for improvement in certain aspects.

Kavya Sudhir: Originally, I had developed the idea a couple of years back when I had personal family experiences with Sepsis. I learned at that time symptoms of sepsis can seem so minor and can be played off as a common cold if one is not specifically looking out for sepsis. Once doing even more research, I found out that many cases of fatal sepsis occur when one is at home, unknown to what could be occurring internally. That is when the idea for Sepsig was born. We envision a wristband that can alert those most vulnerable and uneducated to get the care that they deserve sooner than later.

Walk us through your ideas? 
Joy Chen:  Getting blood work done isn’t always conveniently available to those who need it the most and it can be risky for certain patients to go into a clinic to get blood work done. We conceptualized an at-home blood testing device that can offer a safer, quicker, and more convenient way for a patient to test the levels of the various components of their blood, as a traditional metabolic panel would. This is geared towards patients needing frequent blood work, like those undergoing chemotherapy or treating a chronic condition, and can especially benefit those patients who are immunocompromised since they can do it from the comfort of their home. Once we determined an idea, we had to analyze how we could engineer such a device. After thoroughly searching the internet and reading scientific articles, we concluded that the most efficient way to do so would be by using biosensors. We sketched out ideas of how the mechanics of the device could actually take in the blood, be dispersed to the biosensors, and output the results on a screen. We named our device MePanel, short for the metabolic panel it performs and implying a personalized experience, the main focuses of the device we envision.

Kavya Sudhir: We are developing a wristband that will continuously monitor postoperative patients for the most
common sepsis indicators and alert when medical attention should be sought. Our goal is to reduce the time of
sepsis detection by screening individuals so treatments can be administered to stop the spread before irreversible
damages occur. Once we looked more into the highest rates of sepsis mortality areas, we noticed clusters were in primarily poor regions of the United States. We envision our low-cost wristband to help reduce the need for advanced equipment required for later phases of sepsis as this is many times not available in hospitals serving the low-income communities.

How did you prepare for the big day?
Joy Chen:  When we heard we were one of the twenty finalists selected in March, we got back to work! This time, we connected with patients, engineers, and physicians to further develop the technicalities of the device and put it in the context of hospital needs. Professor Jenny Amos from bioengineering helped us connect with physicians at Carle Hospital who were specialized in our field of interest. We collaborated with Dr. Mehmoodur Rasheed who specializes in rheumatology, Dr. Priyank Patel who specializes in hematology and oncology, and Dr. Shanim Sadiq who specializes in internal medicine. They all emphasized the need for such a device from both the physician’s and patient’s perspective and helped us focus our device’s capabilities and the type of patients it would be suited for. We also spoke with professor Joseph Irudayaraj from bioengineering and discussed the technical workings of such a device. His lab works on developing biosensors and he was able to give us a good idea of how feasible our product was and estimated costs.

Kavya Sudhir: When we first decided to begin actively working on this idea, we attended a start-up hackathon weekend through which we coined the name SepSig and outlined the general idea of our device idea. The feedback we got back from this weekend was valuable and opened up many doors to other competitions. We first heard about the Health Make-a-Thon from professor Holly Golecki who highly recommended entering into the Health Make-a-Thon. When we heard about this competition we were immediately intrigued about the doors it could open up for us if we were to win. Because of her encouragement during the early stages, we gained the confidence to apply. Throughout the process of preparing for the event, we worked with several faculty members including our research mentor Anusha Muralidharan, Dr. Bobby Reddy, and Aadeel Akhtar to gain tips on how to improve our pitch, as well as the idea overall.

What was the virtual Health Make-a-Thon event like?
Joy Chen: After taking into account everything we gathered from these meetings, we had to distill all of our ideas into a two-minute presentation for the “dolphin tank” Make-a-Thon event. It was a difficult task to complete since we knew it had to be concise, informative, and inspirational. The event itself was wonderfully run, and though it was held over Zoom, we could feel the excitement and energy from the contestants and audience alike. The event was incredibly engaging with presentations from every team and a short Q&A following each pitch. At the end of the event and after the judges and audience scored each team.

Kavya Sudhir: Other teams and audience members had a chance to rate each team after they presented and we really enjoyed learning about all the other ideas and backgrounds. We also had to prepare and collaborate through Zoom to write and edit our script and slide decks. The two weeks before the competition we had Zoom calls at 9:00 a.m. every day and tried to conference with multiple experts from different fields from product design to Sepsis to get feedback on our pitch. It was hard trying to convey everything we wanted people to know about SepSig in a zoom pitch in under two minutes but it was a great learning experience for us in the end.

What does this win mean to you and what’s next for your team?
Joy Chen: We were so excited to learn that we were one of the ten winners selected to now have our project funded by the Health Maker Lab. As I’m reflecting on this process, the most important thing we’ve discovered is to seek out people and talk to them. My team reached out to several experts, professionals, and patients who were able to share their experiences, thoughts, and improvements with us, both on our device and the problems we should focus on. We brought our idea from a rough concept into a focused idea and it wouldn’t have been feasible to do without the collaboration from our community. Over the course of the next year, we hope to finalize our design and start prototyping our product. We are looking forward to working with our mentors and the amazing maker community to bring our project to the next level.

Kavya Sudhir: While the resources we have won through the event will greatly benefit our product development and testing, the validation that researchers, professors, and college deans see our vision and believe in our idea was the most rewarding part of the Health Make-a-Thon. Having the resources of the Health Maker Lab will accelerate our timeline for a prototype and open doors to build connections with the Physician Innovators at the Carle College of Medicine.

SOURCE: Grainger College of Engineering – Bioengineering: https://bioengineering.illinois.edu/news/article/2020-health-make-a-thon-winners